Olympic swimmers help kids play tennis

Olympic gold medal swimmers Cullen Jones and Dara Torres put their sea legs aside for a day for some land-based activities at the U.S. Open with local kids. The two kicked off support activities for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

The USTA, in collaboration with Partnership for a Healthier America and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, held a youth tennis exhibition at the U.S. Open to highlight the importance of a healthy and active lifestyle.

Jones, Torres and celebrities and fitness enthusiasts played with the kids on modified courts with soft foam orange balls and smaller rackets designed for youth tennis players.

“We changed the rules of the game on Jan. 1,” said Kurt Kamperman, USTA Chief Executive of Community Tennis. “Until this year, a 9-year-old boy or girl had to play on the same size court as Andy Roddick and Serena Williams. Andy’s 6-foot-2 and an average boy is 4-foot-2. Doesn’t matter, you’re going to play on the same size court, same size racket and with the same fastballs. We changed things because we weren’t getting enough younger kids playing tennis. We figured if we didn’t get them at a younger age we wouldn’t get them at an older age.”

Physical activity is important for the younger generation because studies say one in three born after 2000 will develop diabetes unless their diet and exercise patterns change, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, kids are spending up to seven and a half hours in front of a screen every day according to Sam Kass, White House Assistant Chef & Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives. Time that in the past may have been spent outside playing has been replaced with electronics. Let’s Move encourages kids to start doing what comes natural to them -- play.

“It was always regular for me to be outside and the only rule that I had was be home before the street lights went on,” Jones said.

“The biggest thing that I want kids to understand is, be athletic, go out, have a good time. Do I like playing video games? Sure, but go outside, be social; this is one of the biggest problems.”

Jones’ mother watched from the audience at the Chase Center and spoke about what she did to keep her son healthy and not have him burn out at an early age.

“I used to put Italian dressing on his broccoli when he was a kid to encourage him to eat his greens,” Debra Jones said. “We also let him play other activities to keep him interested.”

Torres, who is a mother, emphasizes not taking sports so seriously at a young age.

“When sports are too serious it’s not fun for the child,” Torres said. “I stayed in swimming so long because I had coaches that liked to play water polo and liked to do Marco Polo in practice. To get kids initially engaged and to get them to stick to something, you have to make it fun.”